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Gardens of the Past

Gunston Hall is a living memorial to architect Harvey Warwick, but is it worth saving?

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the architecture of Washington was being shaped by the expanding federal bureaucracy of the New Deal. Scores of federal workers were coming to the Washington area, and they needed housing. In Alexandria, this period saw the rise of the garden apartment — and of Harvey Warwick, a prolific architect who designed many buildings in the Washington metropolitan area from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Now that one of Warwick’s Alexandria buildings is in the midst of controversy, the importance of his legacy is being questioned. Last year, a developer came forward with a plan to demolish Gunston Hall apartments — a Warwick-designed garden apartment that was built in 1939. City Hall fought back, citing historic preservation as one reason to deny the developer’s request to demolish. But now, a full year later, Gunston Hall may still be headed for demolition.

“The city government is trying to preserve mediocre buildings,” said Doryan Winkelman, an architect who is working with the developer who wants to demolish the building. “Warwick put his own money into this, which made him compromise the consistency of the buildings. The ones off Washington Street don’t have slate roofs or double chimney gables.”

Some neighbors also question the significance of the buildings.

“I was born in 1939, and nobody’s ever called me historic,” said Robert McConnell at a recent public hearing. McConnell and others chastised City Council members for not listening to neighborhood residents who say that the building is an eyesore.

ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIANS who specialize in the Washington area include Warwick in the pantheon of prominent architects of the region. His work spans from the 1920s to the 1940s, embracing several different styles. His modernistic apartment houses include Park Central and the Marlyn, both of which were located in the District of Columbia. His best-known work is the Westchester, a 556-unit gothic apartment house at 4000 Cathedral Ave. in the District.

But Warwick has another claim to fame: He was one of the premiere architects of the garden-apartment movement.

“Garden apartments such as the ones built by Harvey Warwick have an important architectural legacy,” said Isabell Gournay, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland. “Although Warwick might not be a household name, his buildings have a lasting significance.”

The rise of garden apartments represented a new style in Virginia, spacious buildings connected by sidewalks in a garden setting. The bucolic setting was attractive to New Deal workers who were flooding into the Washington area during the 1930 and 1940s.

“During the Depression and war years, garden apartments were considered a practical alternative for the middle class,” wrote James Goode in “Best Addresses,” which features several of Warwick’s buildings. “The low density parklike setting and clean air in these places provided greatly improved, inexpensive living for workers.”

ONE OF WARWICK’S best-known garden apartments is Colonial Village, an Arlington apartment complex that is currently featured in a touring exhibit on affordable housing sponsored by the National Building Museum. The traditional elements of Colonial Village and Gunston Hall are similar, although the former is considerably larger. Colonial Village has 276 units while Gunston Hall has 56 units. But the buildings were modern in other ways.

“The construction of the massive Colonial Village complex in Arlington, Virginia, beginning in 1935 marked the arrival of garden apartment popularity in Washington in a big way,” Goode wrote. “Colonial Village was well publicized in more than two dozen national architectural, urban planning and banking journals, not only for its excellent design but also for its innovative financing.”

Gunston Hall, like Colonial Village, was partially financed with loans from the Federal Housing Administration.

“Warwick was a prolific architect, and he was quite versatile,” said Linda Lyons, an architectural historian with the Art Deco Society of Washington. “Garden apartments are certainly historically significant as Washington-type buildings, and Warwick was one of the most prominent architects at the forefront of that movement.”

THE FATE OF Colonial Village might hold some lessons for Alexandria. In 1977, developer Gustave Ring wanted to sell the property to Mobil Corp. for $17 million. At the time, Mobil was diversifying its portfolio with real-estate acquisitions. The oil company planned to demolish several of the Warwick-designed buildings, but the Colonial Village Tenants Association and the Colonial Village Preservation Committee worked against Mobil’s plans.

In 1979, a compromise was reached — and one-tenth of the complex was demolished to make way for three 12-story “Colonial Place” office buildings. All tenants living at Colonial Village before Dec. 11, 1979 were guaranteed rental apartments if they chose to stay.

Preservationists appealed to the Arlington County Board to save the buildings because of their historic value, arguing that Colonial Village was the first garden apartment complex in the country to integrate interior garden courts with perimeter parks. They also said the buildings were significant because they were the first to be financed by the Federal Housing Administration.

Gunston Hall shares many features with Colonial Village: Ring was the main developer, financing the construction with F.H.A. loans to build a traditional red-brick, low-rise apartment complex in a garden setting. Warwick used many of the same concepts in designing the buildings — and preservationists today are using many of the same tactics that saved Colonial Village in the late 1970s.

Today, builders prefer designs that are denser — with more per-unit sales opportunities as well as increased amenities such as parking garages. But financing options like the ones used by Warwick and Ring continue, a legacy that is represented by the presence of Gunston Hall. When the developers and the lawyers are through with this site, it will either be a representative sample from the 1940s or an early 21st-century model of urban design.

HISTORIC PRESERVATION is popular in Old Town, as public demonstrations against potential demolition show. The city has many examples of vintage buildings from four centuries. And residents are proud of its character. Visitors often remark on its ambience. But is every building worth saving?

“It’s sort of like art, you know? What one person likes might be despised by someone else,” said Poul Hertel, a civil activist who supports preserving Gunston Hall. “Some people say that Gunston Hall is an eyesore, but that’s because the owners have allowed it to become dilapidated.”

Winkelman, the architect who is working with the developer, disagrees. While he acknowledges that Warwick is known for buildings such as the Westchester, he says that Gunston Hall was not his best work.

“The buildings on Washington Street are mediocre, and the buildings off Washington Street are less than mediocre,” he said. “We can do a lot better than what is there now.”